This year, I found myself a bit tongue-tied, not really sure what to say as a curtain call to the year. That's usually not like me, at all. *feels forehead, nice and cool, no fever* Yet, the pessimistic child inside me believes that blank space is evil so let me be honest....
2011 was the year that took the sour and defeated taste of 2010 out of my mouth. It truly did. 2011 personally as well as musically was a smidge and a half better. I was surprised with the breed of new talent that rose to the occasion, was nodding my head at the innovative rhythms, and championed some artists simply because they had a lot to say---and they said it well. Sure there were disappointments and losses (Amy Winehouse, Nick Ashford, Gil Scott-Heron, Heavy D...), but all n' all, I didn't need to raise the volume up with my middle finger at 2011. It bounced, skated, and rocked just fine.
While this may not be the "tops" for everyone, these were the albums I played the most, digested every word, listened and loved every tempo change, and came back hearing something new each time I pressed play. In short, they were my favorites of 2011.
...so here is #30 through #21 at your service....
There were times where I didn't want to like this--at all. It wasn't even going to make this list. It's flawed with bloated production. The bonus material out-shined a lot of album tracks. The "I GOTTA BE MADONNA!!!" arrogant attitude that is down right turn-off-ish to a Material Girl Lifer like me. Then like a filthy secret I'd return time and again and find something in the hard machinery that would keep me listening. Hell, once you get over that rocky beginning and slurp up "Bloody Mary" the album is seeped in a sloshy drunken stupor that makes you feel like you stumbled into a piano bar---and into a hella good time. Hear "Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)", the beautiful nasty of "Heavy Metal Lover", and the dazzling rebel yell of "Bad Kids" to get a grip on the vibe I mean. True, Gaga is sniffing her own arse now, believing in her brilliance to the point where she's rapidly becoming annoying. True, that she's focused more on image instead of what's she really does best---her voice (yep, it's buried in this). Still, like the female Kanye West that she is, ego IS what this album is all about, not about the gender and sexual equality that
Notable Tracks:, Bad Kids, Bloody Mary, Marry The Night, Fashion Of His Love, Heavy Metal Lover, The Edge Of Glory
There has been web chatter that Clare Maguire is a bit of a bore in a live setting, or that this album didn't live up to the odd Blues stomp of the incredible, "Ain't Nobody". Well, if she's that terrible, if Light After Dark is just so polluted with soulless dreck, then she has fooled me. Light plays like the album that Florence + The Machine should have done this year---but then again, that's not fair to Maguire, who doesn't drench her epic sound climbs in pretentious theatrics. Light's biggest fault is that producer Fraser T. Smith lays each song thick with bold synth-n-strings infused proclamations that it becomes a hard to sit through due to Maguire's voice being the real showpiece. Sparingly, the album, with it's interesting Celtic lean, hints at future possibilities. It gallops in fantastically with "The Shield & The Sword" which raises quite a few goosebumps along with "Last Dance", "You're Electric", "Sweet Lie", and "The Happiest Pretenders", which all require the volume to be raised. Following in the same vein as other thick British golden throats like Annie Lennox, Alison Moyet, and Lisa Stansfield, Clare Maguire glides in with glossy and brooding appeal---leading me to believe that maybe there are those who aren't ready for that kind of Pop finery.
Notable Tracks: The Shield & The Sword, The Happiest Pretenders, Ain't Nobody, You're Electric
Nikki Jean - Pennies In A Jar
Oh so quiet Pennies In A Jar fell, it's copper coated melodies somehow missing a market that is hungry for anything vintage. Now before thinking that this is yet another attempt at capturing the bygone eras of shoo-be-dooing, Pennies lives up to authenticity by having the pens and voices behind that "golden Soul/Pop" singer-songwriter era present in the credits, giving the former Lupe Fiasco disciple and Kanye West tour opener something special for her first time out. Thom Bell, Carly Simon, Lamont Dozier, Jimmy Webb, Carole King, Burt Bacharach, and more fill out this dream team, giving Nikki lots of professional support. She even received personal permission by Bob Dylan to re-write and pull "Steel and Feathers (Don't Ever)" out of the three decade slumber it had in his vaults to add to this album---talk about a big 'wow'. Though it's a little too creamy for it's own good, and that roster of talents makes it seem that Nikki is just a 'talking' head for their legendary status, yet Nikki is the captain of her ship, as she drives this nostalgic riddled album with a pen in hand and a voice to boot into a charming sea of Soul, Pop, Folk, and Gospel. In all, with tracks like "How To Unring The Bell", "China" and it's delectable title track, Pennies In A Jar feels like a genuine tribute than copy cat-ism.
Notable Tracks: How To Unring The Bell, Steel and Feathers (Don't Ever), Rockaway, Pennies In A Jar, China
Miguel Migs - Outside The Skyline
House music has the dual personality to either get you rocking steady, or lures you to kick back (with a drink in hand of course) and just let the music take you. Flexible it is, even when it's at it's most divergent. Outside The Skyline takes the road less taken as it seems to me that San Francisco producer/DJ Migs took some risks to make this possibly the best album he has done. One look at the delectably varying assemblage of guest spots will have you thinking this, and for an eclectic music lover like me---this is heaven. Veterans Lisa Shaw and Aya are back on board, along with Reggae artists like Half Pint and Freddie McGregor, Bebel Gilberto, and disco/soul legend herself, Evelyn "Champagne" King bringing their own flavors to this class act. Also get a load of Meshell Ndegeocello who sounds so at home on the likes of "Tonight" and "Close Your Eyes" that you wonder what took someone so long to realize that her seducing alto was meant for this. Like a love affair gone right, Outside The Skyline sweeps you off your feet. [Review]
Notable Tracks: Everybody, Tonight, They Don't Know, The Distance, Breakdown, Don't Stop
Goapele - Break Of Dawn
There was a time where Break Of Dawn seemed like a mirage of a release. After years of keeping us on the edge of our seats with "Milk & Honey", Goapele returns with the most engulfing and focused album of her career. I wasn't as turned-off like others by the fact that this is "only" ten tracks. In fact, that's one of the main reasons why Break Of Dawn works for me. Sometimes we get brainwashed that an album is good due to it's overflow of songs, but here Goapele has to impress in the 'traditional' way when artists way back when had just ten songs or less to get the point across. From sexual heals ("Play" and the superb, "Undertow"), heartbreaks ("Tears On My Pillow" in all it's old school goodness) to odes about motherhood ("Hush"), and back to the cry of being monetary in love (the sly Recession jab in the funky good "Money"), Goapele draws lines to all her points. [Review]
Notable Tracks: Undertow, Tears On My Pillow, Break Of Dawn, Play, Money
Benny Sings - ART
There's a cat on the cover of this. A pretty cat. So ART must be a something worth checking out, right? It's cat approved after all? There's more to it than that....Benny Sings has been a singer whose name I've come across, but didn't really delve further. Reasons are unknown, just that I wonder what took me so long. Benny's got a real Christopher Cross thing going on. Not a bad thing because "Sailing" is bad ass (whether you want to believe it or not), but Benny's attention to the soulful corners of 70's Soft Rock along with his tunes of love n' lost, makes him sort of interesting, and he's got a whole album full of that kind piano-pop-rock that puts pep in the step. Hall & Oates' style is given a nod on the sunny tracks of "Can We Try" and favorite, "Honey Bee", while "Realize" takes things into a dub-step soul crawl that contrasts in all the right ways. Yet, "Big Brown Eyes" is the winner and played often it needs to be.
Notable Tracks: Big Brown Eyes, Honey Bee, Realize
Sophie Ellis-Bextor - Make A Scene
America is clearly settling---or afraid to embrace Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Settling in that folks overseas are crafting Pop music that doesn't pander. Afraid in the sense, that The Bex would probably make competition stiffer because of her posh demeanor and smart yet savory dance tunage that makes American Top 40 Pop child's play. Make A Scene furthers the unique twists, rhythmic pounds, and overall power that The Bex puts forth in her efforts---a power that sorely gets brushed over. A lengthy time in the making, Scene is a frenzied romp that features such stomping opuses like "Revolution", "Not Giving Up On Love", "Heartbreak (Make Me A Dancer)", and the early 90's punch of the title track, as well as others. "Starlight" further extends the fact that Sophie can class up the joint, as well as be rhythmically in-tune, and it's the main highlight. Chock-filled with dance music's producing elite (Calvin Harris, Richard X, Junior Caldera, Freemasons...for starts), that roster alone can make this a daunting effort, but each song strangely slips into each other, like the ultimate DJ it is and a party is to be had. If you just want a straight up injection of sizzling floor burners, then Make A Scene provides that cure. This is the dance album of 2011 that people should be listening to.
Notable Tracks: Starlight, Make A Scene, Not Giving Up On Love, Bittersweet, Magic, Revolution
Jill Scott - The Light Of The Sun
About a decade ago, Jilly from Philly released Who Is Jill Scott? With it she refashioned the idea of modern Soul and took her big sister wisdom straight into the millennium. Now eleven years down, Scott is still a prominent fixture for those who still jones for the days of Soul yore, but like it with a twist of current intellect. Pitting long-time listeners at a dividing line, Scott's fourth album, Light Of The Sun isn't Jill at her best as it's at her most commercial (thanks to her shift to Warner Brothers) with her sounding less progressive even though she's backed by with long-time collaborators Dre & Vidal and JR Hutson. Yet, Light Of The Sun is gentile, feminist forward, and melodic enough, to where minor discrepancies aren't a real bother. Brassy numbers like "Hate On Me" and "Blessed" are Scott in her usual confident air, but when she goes from the throwdown to the cooldown is when Scott begins to teach with a tender touch. Class is in session once the Paul Wall assisted "So Gone (What My Mind Says)"and the snatch-n-grab grooves of the Prince-y duo of "Making You Wait" and "Missing You" come into play. While "Hear My Call" wins it all as Scott's finest display of balladry and spiritual awakening. Even when she's a bit light on her feet, Scott still manages to woo and inspire.
Notable Tracks: Hear My Call, So Gone (What My Mind Says), Making You Wait, Until Then (I Imagine)
Feist - Metals
By no means is this The Reminder---and really you don't want Metals to be. You want Feist to sort of grow from what made The Reminder a commercial darling. On the fence, with legs ready to either bail or join the greener pastures, was where I rested with this album. "How Come You Never Go There" didn't prod me further, even though it was charming and one of the best songs to come out of the summer. Something about Metals is that it's an album that you need to hear more than once to fully appreciate how Feist spun this, how she made this a quilt of potency. Even when she's being summer soft like on "The Circle Married The Line", she packs a lot of heat. Gut bucket banjos and guitars (the brilliant "The Bad In Each Other"), along with ram-bam percussion ("Comfort Me") and chants (deliciously done on the surprising "A Commotion") make this wild west of an album a treat and having Feist into a 'prairie folk woman' this side of Joni Mitchell's early years. It all quietly rises Feist above The Reminder proving she's more than just "1234" and songs meant for an iPod commercial.
Notable Tracks: The Bad In Each Other, A Commotion, Graveyard, Comfort Me, Caught A Long Wind, How Come You Never Go There
Ben Westbeech - There's More To Life Than This
Lending an ear to "Something For The Weekend" makes Ben Westbeech sound like he's doing his best Jamiroquai impression---this is evident when the track smooth talks it way in. Yet, I never judge an album by it's first single as the rest of There's More To Life Than This will alter the thought process a bit to think Westbeech is a Jay Kay 'Klone'. There's a little bit of everything sprinkled in, and while it's a bit too broad for an album, it's all in Westbeech's debonair performance that makes this music with backbone. A pop current blows in with "Same Thing", on "Inflections" has a Latin twist to it, while "Falling", "Justice", and "The Book" are deeply rooted in the House music tradition. Stunner "Summer's Loss"---the lone piece of balladry---has Westbeech utilizing his rich tone with a tender hand. The best moment outside of "Summer's Loss" occurs with "Butterflies", a proggy-Jazz number that sounds unlike any song on the album as it churns along. Yes, House music was very good to me this year (see Miguel Migs above) and this little-big album continued that affair. [Review]
Notable Tracks: Butterflies, Something For The Weekend, Falling, Justice, The Book, Summer's Loss